Suffragettes dressed for rights
Historical society talk focuses on fashion’s role
One hundred years since women in the United States won the right to vote, it is easy to overlook the hard steps that led to the polls. It is even easier to overlook the importance that pockets played in those steps.
“If your dress had pockets, it was a suffragette dress,” said Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, a visiting assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University, who teaches courses in history, fashion, consumer culture and politics.
Rabinovitch-Fox explored the importance of fashion in the women’s suffrage movement in an online presentation Saturday, hosted by the Northeast Ohio Suffrage Centennial Committee in partnership with the Trumbull County Historical Society and Ohio Humanities. The talk, adapted for the COVID-19 climate, marked the centential anniversary of women’s right to vote.
“Celebrating women getting the right to vote is an important reminder of the decadeslong struggle that suffragists faced to ensure that women can represent themselves in political decisions,” Mia Owens with the Trumbull County Historical Society said. “By commemorating their work, we also hope to emphasize the importance of voting rights and recognize the continued efforts to pursue equal rights today.”
The national women’s suffrage movement began in the late 1800s and continued until 1920, when on Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women across the country the right to vote.
Over the movement’s roughly 50-year span, suffragists had to fight hostile media and anti-suffrage opposition that painted women of the movement as subversive and threatening to the established gender hierarchy. In order to counteract those images, later suffragists turned to fashion, Rabinovitch-Fox said.
“Fashion is not just something women wear — it is something that they utilize as part of their message,” Rabinovitch-Fox said.
In the 20th century, suffragists turned away from unsuccessful “Bloomers” — a divided pants-like look that did not confirm to gender or fashion notions of the time — and aimed to cultivate an appealing image by reclaiming conventional fashion.
“There was an understanding that they need to to appeal to men in order to gain suffrage because men had the vote back then,” Rabinovitch-Fox said. “This idea — it’s not just what we say, but how we say it — is something that came to the forefront of suffragette campaigning.”
Savvy suffragettes used images of beautiful women who boasted common domestic skills to promote the movement. They knew their political ideas would be more palitible if delivered by attractive messengers, Rabinovitch-Fox said.
“Women were determined to take an active part in the community and look pretty, too,” she said.
At the same time as suffragettes began to march, women’s fashion became more practical. Shorter hemlines and less bulky undergarments allowed women to move more freely. The rising popularity of bicycling led to the normalization of split skirts.
Still, feminists preferred certain styles — including a tailored suit and skirt, which was “practical and respectable.” These suits often had pockets.
“Pockets have always been a functional item in people’s clothes and always something suffragists fought for,” Rabinovitch-Fox said.
Women who wore dresses with pockets were seen as supporters of the suffrage movement. Viewers who tuned in for the Zoom presentation fixated on pockets, asking Rabinovitch-Fox to elaborate about the role of pockets today.
“I think we should emphasize how much pockets is a feminist movement,” Rabinovitch-Fox said, pointing to the fact that when women’s clothes have pockets, they are often smaller or less functional than men’s.
She said during the suffrage movement, one argument for pockets was that men could carry tools for learning. Women, on the other hand, were deprived of keeping those tools on them.
“If we only had functional pockets that we could put our wallets and our phones and our books and maginfiying glass,” Rabinovitch-Fox joked.
Suffrage fashion was not just about style, though — color also played a role.
“Suffragists utilized a more diverse color scheme than we often see in the black and white photographs,” Rabinovitch-Fox said. “A parade plan, for example, specified the order of the marches by their status and profession, but also by color.”
She said social workers wore blue, while students wore green and artists wore rose — creating a harmonious image. The bright colors worn by women were contrasted by the darker colors worn by men in the crowd.
“By the 20th century, they’re arguing that we can bring something to politics that men can’t,” Rabinovitch-Fox said.
She said the women’s organization of color and fashion supported the idea that they could bring order to chaos and clean up politics.
The original suffrage color in the United States was yellow, which came from the sunflowers Kansas suffragists adopted in the late 1860s. Later, American suffragists also adopted purple and white from British suffragists who used the colors.
Purple stood for loyalty, white for purity and yellow for hope.
The inclusion of white made suffrage outfits accessible for working-class and African-American women, who could afford the comparably cheaper white dresses and then add purple or yellow decorations.
Though the movement was ultimately an elite one, African-American women also played an important role. Photographs rarely captured their involvement because they were relegated to the back of parades and their images were not used in most media, Rabinovitch-Fox said.
The fashion of early 20th century suffragists still echoes through today.
“The use of clothing in the service of promoting political agenda also changed the way the feminists thought about fashion and really marked a new relationship between fashion and feminism,” Rabinovitch-Fox said. “This use of clothing did not end in 1920.”
Rabinovitch-Fox pointed to recent presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of the pants-suit in her campaign. At the Democratic National Committee, Clinton wore white in honor of suffragists when she gave her acceptance speech. At the 2020 State of the Union, many Democratic women wore white for the same reason.
Despite the power of fashion, “it never replaces the impact of a well organized action,” Rabinovitch-Fox added. “Don’t just wear white; go vote as well.”
Upcoming celebrations of the 19th Amendment include a “Valiant Visionaries of the Vote” suffrage driving tour at various sites throughout northeast Ohio, according to Owens. Originally imagined as a trading-card collection event, in light of COVID-19, mini outdoor suffrage displays with digital QR codes will be set up. The project is set to to be up and running by the end of August.
The Historical Society Museum, 208 S. Broadway Ave., Salem, is celebrating women’s suffrage with an exhibit featuring artifacts from the movement and women’s clothing from 1850 to 1920. The exhibit will be up through October, and the museum is open 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays or by appointment, with a $6 admission for adults and $3 for children.